THE CASE of Professor Bertell Ollman has been an especially "good read" from its inception in 1978 to last week's headlines. For once, the facts of a controversy are less in dispute than the motives involved. After a search committee from the University of Maryland's Department of Government and Politics recommended hiring Mr. Ollman, Marxist scholar, as department chairman, several 1978 Maryland gubernatorial candidates spoke out against the appointment during the primary campaign. At the College Park campus, both the chancellor and provost backed Mr. Ollman, but departing university president Wilson H. Elkins bucked final approval to his successor, John Toll, who (despite Mr. Ollman's public threat to sue the university if disapproved) rejected the appointment.According to Mr. Toll, he based his decision solely upon an assessment of Mr. Ollman's academic qualifications.
The president's decision had several immediate consequences and a few later spinoffs. Understandably, Mr. Ollman carried out his treat to sue. The national publicity that accompanied Mr. Toll's decision sent Mr. Ollman's board game, "Class Struggle" -- in essence a Marxist version of "Monopoly" -- zooming up in sales. The Marxist-academic-turned-capitalist-entrepreneur then described his experiences in a New York Times Magazine article, which led (in turn) to a Hollywood movie project on Mr. Ollman's life. At the moment, while awaiting the outcome of his lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Mr. Ollman says he's writing his memoirs, the working title of which is "The True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman."
But the promotional aspects of the Ollman drama constitute merely the inevitable American sideshow in this case. Unlike Mr. Ollman's fans, we are waiting for neither the book nor the movie -- nor even people's monopoly. The lawsuit alone is what concerns us, because -- as we observed at the time -- Mr. Toll's action poses some troublesome questions about thje criteria he used in evaluating Mr. Ollman's appointment. If the court finds persuasive Mr. Ollman's contention that Mr. Toll rejected his candidacy only because his Marxist views had become the subject of Maryland political controversy, the university should act promptly to reinstate Mr. Ollman's appointment. Maryland politicians must not be allowed to intrude into the appointment of teachers and scholars at the university simply because of displeasure with their political opinions -- period.
At the same time, we recognize that Mr. Toll's defense of his decision deserves as respectful a hearing as Mr. Ollman's complaints. We do not envy him the job of explaining just why his opinion of Mr. Ollman's academic merits dissented so completely from the views of his colleagues. But neither should we deny the importance -- or the legitimacy -- of such presidential review.
This episode was not the first time that a university president overruled a faculty search committee is disagreement over appointment of a candidate, nor will it be the last. In the wrong hands, such discretion has led at times to discrimination against applicant because of race, sex, politics and even social manners. During the 1970s, the inaction of administrators, fearful of stirring a campus ruckus, led on accasion to the approval of unqualified candidates as the price of avoiding the charge of discrimination, however false. The problem confronted by university presidents such as Mr. Toll, made more difficult for him by the internal strains within the campus because of the Ollman case, consists in continuing to defend the highest standards of academic competence against all the pressure groups, whether inside or beyond the university's walls.